Christian Caryl

The Lesson from Mali: Do No Harm

An African success story is in trouble. Is the West's intervention in Libya to blame?


I realize that most Americans or Europeans wouldn’t be able to pick out Mali on a map. But it’s still a shame that recent events in that West African country have been getting so little attention. Until recently, Mali was one of Africa’s big success stories. Now it’s foundering.

This is especially ironic when you consider that it may be the policies of the West — well-intentioned policies that were aimed at ridding the world of a specific evil — that have contributed to Mali’s troubles.

In a continent that doesn’t have much of a reputation for liberal governance, Mali stood out. For the past twenty years this country of 12 million people has stuck doggedly to democratic principles. In 1991, Malians overthrew a military dictatorship and convened a national assembly that drew up a constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press, far-reaching decentralization, and presidential elections every five years. In the years since then, the people of this Muslim-majority country have consistently managed to stick to those principles. The next presidential vote was scheduled for the end of this month.

Now that election has been postponed, and the fate of Mali’s democracy is up for grabs. In some ways this latest crisis is not entirely new. For decades the government of Mali has been contending with flickers of rebellion in the country’s arid north, which is inhabited by Tuaregs, a desert people scattered across the Sahara and Sahel. The Tuaregs have little in common with southern Malians, who tend to be much closer, in culture and mentality, to the coastal Africans who dominate the countries to the south. But for all their discontent, the Tuareg separatists never quite succeeded in making much headway. Even Mali’s underequipped military managed to contain the insurgency.

All that changed dramatically in January of this year, when a Tuareg separatist army, suddenly emerging from obscurity, achieved a stunning series of victories across the north. The Malian army was forced into a humiliating retreat. Disgruntled officers then staged a coup in the capital of Bamako, accusing President Amadou Toumani Touré of failing to offer proper support for the war effort. Earlier this week, after a long period of uncertainty over his whereabouts, Touré emerged to tender his resignation as part of a compromise deal reached with the coup leaders, who have now handed over executive power to the leader of the national assembly. (The deal, rather remarkably, was brokered by the Economic Community of West African States, a regional grouping.)

Touré’s resignation is supposed to pave the way toward a new presidential election, but it remains to be seen whether Mali’s democratic institutions can recover from the damage that has been done to them. On April 6, the rebels declared that the territory under their control — an area a bit bigger than France — is now an independent state, which they call Azawad. Taking it back may well prove beyond the capacity of Mali’s armed forces, and a failure to do so will undoubtedly strike a blow to the credibility of the government during what is sure to be a delicate transition.

But how did the rebels – who staged earlier rebellions in the 1990s and then again between 2007 and 2009 – suddenly manage to pull off such a breathtaking victory? While the reasons are undoubtedly complex, there’s one factor that immediately jumps out: the collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, Mali’s neighbor to the north.

The uprising against Qaddafi began in February 2011. A few weeks later NATO decided to intervene, and started providing air cover to the armed opposition. Few experts would dispute, I think, that that help from the West was crucial to the ultimate success of the resistance. Qaddafi, after all, had at his disposal enormous arsenals of artillery and armor, resources denied to his foes. Without NATO’s leveling of the playing field it’s hard to imagine how the rebels could have won.

Qaddafi was finally captured and killed on October 20. Three days later the National Transitional Council, Libya’s interim government, declared the "liberation" of the country — even though the NTC was incapable of asserting centralized control over a country awash in weapons. And it was just a few weeks after Qaddafi’s demise that the Tuaregs launched their campaign in northern Mali.

Precisely how this Tuareg force materialized is still a bit of a mystery, but what’s beyond dispute is that most of its fighters came from Libya. Deeply distrustful of the Libyan military, Qaddafi was known to hire mercenaries from other African countries to provide security to himself and his government. Tuaregs were certainly among them. Qaddafi also sponsored a variety of insurgent movements around Africa as a way of ensuring influence. But the experts agree that he also kept those groups on a tight leash. Alex Thurston, author of Sahel Blog, points out that it was actually Qaddafi, of all people, who mediated a ceasefire in the Tuareg rebellion in 2009.

With their sponsor and protector gone, the Libya-based separatists no longer had any reason to stay where they were. And they must have seen the sudden availability of heavy weapons in now unguarded arsenals as a chance too good to pass up.

So it seems clear enough that the civil war in Libya was a proximate cause for the success of the Tuareg rebellion. But to what extent are the West’s actions specifically to blame? Did the well-meaning intervention against Qaddafi unleash the forces that have now led to the downfall of democracy in Mali?

The answers may not be entirely clear — especially considering the difficulties of getting reliable information from one of the most remote regions on earth. But the timing is certainly suspicious. Libya was in turmoil for eight months until Qaddafi’s death, but the Tuaregs launched their attack only a few weeks after that. "Come January the balance of power does shift," says Naunihal Singh, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. "And one of the reasons is the influx of men and weapons [from Libya]."

And that raises the issue of whether Washington and its European allies did enough to anticipate and predict the possible regional knock-on effects of intervention. Policymakers should have been aware of the risks, says Singh — not least because of fears that a power vacuum in the north might create a safe haven for militants from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. (For the record, FP was already writing about the dangers of Tuareg mercenaries returning to Mali in March 2011.) But NATO planners were clearly focused on their primary tasks of preventing Qaddafi from killing more Libyan civilians and supporting the resistance.

Could they have done more to contain possible blowback? Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says that his organization repeatedly urged NATO to take measures to prevent the outflow of weapons from Qaddafi’s arsenals: "Our view is that more could have been done as government territory fell to rebel forces in Libya to secure supplies of arms." But he is quick to acknowledge that this was no easy task.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to argue here that we should have left the Libyan dictator in place. As Malinowski points out, it would be a mistake to portray Qaddafi as a source of regional stability, given his obsessive meddling in the affairs of his neighbors. "In the long run it was in nobody’s interest to have a brutal dictator in Tripoli who used rebel groups around the region to serve his purposes and whenever it suited his whims," he says. "But in the short run, the collapse of his regime may have contributed to what we’re seeing now in Mali."

To be sure, we shouldn’t oversimplify the case. Mali’s leaders certainly bear considerable responsibility for the predicament in which the country now finds itself. For all its achievements, Malian democracy has been undermined for years by corruption, poverty, and complacency.

Nonetheless, recent events in this part of the world offer an important cautionary tale. The lesson: Even in situations where there is ample justification for using force against dictators or war criminals, policymakers would be well-advised to take a good look at the possible negative side effects of their actions. Perhaps it’s time for humanitarian interventionists to come up with their own version of the Hippocratic Oath?

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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